- Postcolonial Literature and the Impact of Literacy:Reading and Writing in African and Caribbean Fiction by Neil ten Kortenaar
I find it helpful to regard this study as a response from the field of postcolonial literary studies to Karin Barber’s The Anthropology of Texts, Persons, and Publics, for both concern themselves with the way different kinds of literacy and orality intersect and interact in particular historical contexts. Literacy and orality do not, as both books demonstrate, intrinsically shape a mind or a society in a predetermined way, but can only be defined locally and in dynamic relation to one another.
A study like this needed to be written for several reasons. First, it is a fair assumption that literary writing, a particularly focused and self-conscious affair, contains special insight into the workings of written language—and also by implication oral language. Second, even more such insight can probably be located in literature coming from Africa and the Caribbean, where the question of literacy has political and philosophical salience because of literacy’s alliance with modernity and colonialism, its absence in the alphabetic sense in many societies until quite recently, and the great cultural importance ascribed to oral “texts” originating from Africa. Ten Kortenaar’s study owes its remarkable unity in part to these historical commonalities between African and Caribbean literary contexts. Writers in Africa and the Caribbean have special insight about literacy because they can clearly imagine a world without it.
These literatures have already been deeply mined for insight on orality, but not so deeply on literacy. Because of his thematic focus, ten Kortenaar gives most of his attention to texts set in the historical past that depict colonial contact and literacy’s arrival. For me, his most interesting conclusion concerns historical novels in Africa and the Caribbean: in addition to exposing the false promises of wealth or influence or emancipation associated in a (post)colonial context with writing, they evoke optimism about writing’s power to keep (or to make) the past alive. Thus Postcolonial Literature and the Impact of Literacy stands as an argument for the benefits of fiction for historical (self-)knowledge.
The bulk of this monograph is a study of four novels, Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe, Ìsarà by Wole Soyinka, A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul, and Myal by Erna Broadber, that “together constitute a synoptic history of literacy in Africa and the West Indies in the first half of the twentieth century” (8). Following these is a chapter on Dambudzo Marechera’s novella “House of Hunger,” set in 1960s and 70s Rhodesia, and a conclusion that very briefly treats novels by Boris Diop and Edwidge Danticat. Ten Kortenaar knows the field of African and Caribbean literatures extremely well, so he is able to pepper his narrative with references to dozens of additional texts. One of the book’s many strengths is the way it balances detailed attention to the impact of literacy in the central novels with panoramic shots of the field. One of the book’s few weaknesses, however, is that, at times, colorful literary allusions outweigh historical commentary and explicit argumentation, [End Page 195] making this reader unsure what conclusion is to be drawn; an example of which occurs in the chapter on writing’s capacity for violence in Marechera’s novella, which includes a single sentence on E.M. Forster, in “Howards End, working-class autodidact Leonard Bast is crushed under a falling bookcase” (184).
The chapters are arranged roughly in order of the novels’ publication and ten Kortenaar’s careful and creative readings, like Barber’s findings mentioned above, tend to invert many of the stereotypical associations of orality and literacy. For example, Achebe’s novel, in ten Kortenaar’s reading, suggests that the concentration and trustworthiness that colonial rule associated with the literacy it peddled were already available to the Igbo avant la lettre and that, even from the perspective of the colonial officials laboring “in the field,” written...